June 5th, 2009


The prison notebooks of Gento Matsumoto

I first saw Gento Matsumoto's CD-ROM PopUpComputer at a party given by designers M/M in Paris in 1996. Taking the form of an A-Z pop-up children's book, the disk is packed with eccentric wonders: an airship that catches fire and burns up Paris, the diary of a Robinson-Crusoe-like ape. I ordered my own copy, and spent hours in its odd parallel universe. CD-ROM is pretty much dead as a medium, but I still remember PopUpComputer as one of the most fun things you could do with a computer back in 1996. It was certainly an influence on my own ROM, created the same year, This Must Stop! In 2002 Matsumoto created Animal Leader (known in Japan as Dobutsu Bancho and in the US as Cubivore -- Survival of the Fittest) for the Nintendo GameCube. This weird game can only be described as Social Darwinism made cute and cubic:

In the fifteen odd years since creating PopUpComputer, art director Gento Matsumoto has had a few ups and downs, including a six month spell in prison in late 1994, early 1995. "I committed every crime a driver can," he told Public-Image.org, "except running someone over." (Actually, his crime seems mostly to have been driving persistently without a license.)

The 48 year-old Matsumoto has returned with a new venture, a website called BCCKS, a platform for consumer-generated books (especially photo books) which can be put together on the web with a series of templates and tools. "Bccks is a service that will let you make your own magazine, novel, illustrated book, photo book or diary," explains the How to make bccks page. "By opening the "O" in BOOKS, we have opened the floodgates. The publication market is now available to everyone." Appropriately enough, one of the best digi-books on BCCKS is Matsumoto's own prison diaries, After Prison Uncut.

Japanese prison is fairly strict; Matsumoto wasn't allowed to use email, and even his notebooks were strictly controlled (only a certain kind of pen could be used, for instance). Today, he recommends a short spell in jail as a mind-focusing exercise, but also as a way to enhance the post-prison experience of daily life -- you certainly don't take anything for granted after a spell inside. Together with photographer Kutusita, Matsumoto has evoked the small pleasures of post-incarceration: a stroll to the temple, a cup of tea in front of the computer.

I find it interesting that Matsumoto and I were both making CD-ROMs a dozen or so years ago, and are now both making books (or digital approximations of books). But I suppose PopUpComputer was a "book" too -- the most intriguingly strange pop-up book a kid could imagine. Or an adult, for that matter.